Today’s “Planet Earth Report” –‘Our Strange, Cosmic Human-Evolutionary Path Looks More Miraculous the Longer We Survive’

 

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Maybe we owe our existence to a vast looming shadow of unseen, broken worlds. If we can only ever wake up on rare and seemingly miraculous worlds—and it’s a big enough universe—we shouldn’t be surprised to find our past filled with miracles.

It’s something of a miracle that life on our planet has been left to evolve without fatal interruption for billions of years, writes Peter Brannen in today's Atlantic. Such a long unbroken chain of survival, however unlikely, is necessary for bags of mud and water like ourselves to eventually sit up, and just recently, to wonder how we got here. And like the bullet-riddled—but safe—planes, our planet has survived countless near-fatal blows. There have been volcanic apocalypses, body blows from supersonic space rocks the size of Mount Everest, and ice ages that might have frozen the planet almost to the tropics. Had any of these catastrophes been worse, we wouldn’t be here. But they couldn’t have been worse for precisely that reason.

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As Anders Sandberg, a senior research fellow at University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and his coauthors Nick Bostrom and Milan Ćirković write, “The risks associated with catastrophes such as asteroidal/cometary impacts, supervolcanic episodes, and explosions of supernovas/gamma-ray bursts are based on their observed frequencies. As a result, writes Brannen, the frequencies of catastrophes that destroy or are otherwise incompatible with the existence of observers are systematically underestimated.”

That is, our forecasts about the future could be blinded by our necessarily lucky past. Not only is it impossible to look back and find truly world-ending impact craters in our planet’s history—stranger still, it would be impossible to find these impacts in the rock record even if they struck planets like ours all the time. Existential hazards, even if they’re extremely likely, might hover just out of frame, concealed by our “anthropic shadow.”

“Maybe the universe is super dangerous and Earth-like planets are destroyed at a very high rate,” Sandberg says. “But if the universe is big enough, then when observers do show up on some very, very rare planets, they’ll look at the record of meteor impacts and disasters and say, ‘The universe looks pretty safe!’ But the problem is, of course, that their existence depends on them being very, very lucky. They’re actually living in an unsafe universe and next Tuesday they might get a very nasty surprise.”

Image credit: Cosmic dice by Zoë van Dijk

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